gender

Way back in 1996 sociologist Susan Walzer published a research article pointing to one of the more insidious gender gaps in household labor: thinking. It was called “Thinking about the Baby.”

In it, Walzer argued that women do more of the intellectual and emotional work of childcare and household maintenance. They do more of the learning and information processing (like buying and reading “how-to” books about parenting or researching pediatricians). They do more worrying (like wondering if their child is hitting his developmental milestones or has enough friends at school). And they do more organizing and delegating (like deciding when towels need washing or what needs to be purchased at the grocery store), even when their partner “helps out” by accepting assigned chores.

For Mother’s Day, a parenting blogger named Ellen Seidman powerfully describes this exhausting and almost entirely invisible job. I am compelled to share. Her essay centers on the phrase “I am the person who notices…” It starts with the toilet paper running out and it goes on… and on… and on… and on. Read it.

She doesn’t politicize what she calls an “uncanny ability to see things… [that enable] our family to basically exist.” She defends her husband (which is fine) and instead relies on a “reduction to personality,” that technique of dismissing unequal workloads first described in the canonical book The Second Shift: somehow it just so happens that it’s her and not her husband that notices all these things.

But I’ll politicize it. The data suggests that it is not an accident that it is she and not her husband that does this vital and brain-engrossing job. Nor is it an accident that it is a job that gets almost no recognition and entirely no pay. It’s work women disproportionately do all over America. So, read it. Read it and remember to be thankful for whoever it is in your life that does these things. Or, if it is you, feel righteous and demand a little more recognition and burden sharing. Not on Mother’s Day. That’s just one day. Everyday.

Cross-posted and in print at Money.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

TSP_Assigned_pbk_978-0-393-28445-4Assigned: Life with Gender is a new anthology featuring blog posts by a wide range of sociologists writing at The Society Pages and elsewhere. To celebrate, we’re re-posting four of the essays as this month’s “flashback Fridays.” Enjoy! And to learn more about this anthology, a companion to Wade and Ferree’s Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, please click here.

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“Tits,” by Matt Cornell

Of the many nicknames I’ve acquired over the years, there’s one I’m reminded of today. The name was given to me by a bully shortly after I entered the sixth grade. I had been a fat kid since elementary school, but as puberty began to kick in, parts of me started growing differently than expected. The doctors said I had gynecomastia. “Man boobs,” or “moobs” in the jeering parlance of our popular culture.

But my bully simply called them “tits.” And so this also became my name in the school hallways.

I was Tits.

He would pass me in the hall and catcall “Hey Tits!” and his buddies would laugh. Sometimes, if he was feeling extra bold, he might actually grab one of my breasts, and squeeze it in front of the other kids. Not everyone laughed. But many did.

As direct as this bullying was, growing up with gynecomastia was characterized by smaller insults. Most kids would just ask “Why don’t you wear a bra?” Even adults could be cruel. “Are you a boy or a girl?” I was often asked.

When wearing shirts, it was crucial that they be loose fitting. If a T-shirt had shrunk in the dryer, I would spend hours and days stretching it out, so that it didn’t cling to my body. You can see fat boys do this every day. Pulling at their shirts to hide the shape of their bodies, but particularly their breasts.

As a fat kid, and one who hated competition, I learned to loathe sports, and especially, physical education. The one form of exercise which I enjoyed from childhood was swimming. Unfortunately, as my breasts grew, so did my shame about removing my shirt. At summer camp, I never set foot in the swimming pool. I knew that taking off my shirt would bring ridicule, and that leaving it on while swimming would show that I felt ashamed of my body. So, I pretended that I was above swimming — that I was too cool for the pool.

By high school, I had developed remarkable powers of verbal self defense. I absorbed cruelty and learned how to mete it back out in sharp doses. There’s no doubt that this shaped the person I became, for better and for worse. In high school, I managed to carve out a social niche for myself. The bullying stopped. But the shirts stayed loose-fitting. I rarely went swimming.

The doctors thought that perhaps I suffered from low testosterone. I found this funny, since my sex drive had been in high gear since the time I was a sophomore. I assured them that this was not the case. Finally, the doctors said that my excess breast tissue was probably just a result of being fat. Lose the weight and the breasts will go away.

So I lost weight. I don’t remember how much. But by senior year, I was slender. Girls were starting to talk to me. I was more confident. And I still had breasts. After graduation, the doctors congratulated me on my thin body. Now it was time to get rid of my breasts.

In the first surgery, I was placed under general anesthesia. The doctor made a half moon incision under each nipple and cut out the excess breast tissue, finishing the job with some liposuction. Unfortunately the surgery wasn’t a complete success. My breasts were smaller, but lumpy, and my nipples were puckered. It took a second surgery to make everything look “normal.”

I was nineteen. On New Year’s Eve, I went to a party and got drunk for the first time in my life. There, I met a girl who took my virginity. She was too drunk to insist on taking my shirt off. This was a relief, because under my shirt was a sports bra, and under that layers of gauze. My chest was still healing from the second surgery. In many senses of the word, I was still becoming a man.

I’m reminded of this recently, oddly enough, after reading one of those “humorous” snarky news stories that pop up in the right column of The Huffington Post. Perhaps you’ve seen the photo making the rounds. It’s of Barney Frank’s “moobs.” The photo inspired similar stories at gay culture site Queerty, Gawker and Slate, which used the incident as the pretense for a scientific column.

While all of these nominally liberal sites pay lip service to the dignity of gay and transgender people, they miss one thing that is very clear to me. Aside from the obvious fat shaming in these stories, the fixation on “man boobs” reveals our culture’s obsession with binary gender. As I noted on The Huffington Post’s comment thread, before a moderator whisked my comment away, “the only breasts The Huffington Post approves of are those of thin, white female celebrities.”

Here’s one of the many comments Huffpo didn’t delete:

It’s culturally ubiquitous. PETA, for example, is a habitual offender:

Men are supposed to have flat chests, hairy bodies and big penises. Women are supposed to have large breasts, thin hairless bodies and tidy labias. (If a woman’s labia are too big, it just might remind us that, with a little testosterone, the same tissue would make a penis.)

We have all the evidence we need that biological sex and gender are not as rigid or fixed as we imagine. There are intersexed people. There are transgender people and genderqueer people. There are millions of men and boys like me, who also have large breasts, or gynecomastia, a medically harmless (though socially lethal) condition that your insurance just might pay to correct. The prevalence of gynecomastia in adolescent boys is estimated to be as low as 4% and as high as 69% . As one article notes: “These differences probably result from variations in what is perceived to be normal.” You think?

We’re so entrenched in that snips ‘n snails bullshit, that we can’t accept bodies which don’t fall on either extreme of the gender continuum. Transgender men and women encounter these attitudes in direct, and sometimes life-threatening ways. And, given the misogyny that pervades our society, these pressures are even harder for women and girls, whether they’re cisgender or transgender. Their bodies are hated and desired in equal measure. When my bully grabbed my breasts and called me “Tits,” he was taking what he wanted. He was also reminding me that I was no better than a girl. I was beneath him.

With the explosion of social media and the surveillance society, body policing has gotten much more intense. We live in an age of crowdsourced bullying. I cannot imagine what it would be like to grow up as a boy with breasts in 2011. I suppose I’d spend hours in Photoshop digitally sculpting my body, to remove fat from my face, belly and chest before uploading my profile photos. If I were a fat girl, I might become very skilled at using light and angles to disguise my less than ideal body, to avoid being dubbed a “SIF” or “secret internet fatty,” by my tech-savvy peers. I would probably become vigilant about removing tags from unflattering photos and obsess over remarks people made about me on comment threads.

Twenty years have gone by, and I miss my breasts. As a chubby adult male, I still have a small set of breasts, but not the ones I was born with. The two surgeries also deprived my nipples of their sensitivity.

I’ve often joked that if I knew I was going to become a performance artist, I would have kept my breasts. The breasts I have now are smaller, but still capable of stoking the body police. I once scandalized a fancy pool party in Las Vegas simply by taking off my shirt. I realize that, as a man, it is my privilege to do so. In most parts of our society, it is either illegal or strongly frowned upon for a woman to go topless. (Female breasts are either for maternity or for male sexual pleasure, not for baring at polite parties.) Perhaps my breasts, which remind people of this prohibition, invite a similar kind of censure.

I’ve performed naked enough in my adult life to know that the body police can always find a new area to target. I was recently stunned to hear porn actress Dana DeArmond describe me during a podcast interview as a “fat lady” while her host Joe Rogan openly theorized that my small penis was somehow connected to my feminism. Rogan’s view of gender is so restrictive that he can only conceive of male feminism if it is in a feminized body. (This is probably also why men who support feminism are often dubbed “manginas” by misogynists.)

There might actually be tens of thousands of words devoted to describing my fat body and small penis on the internet. It’s almost a point of pride. Now, I don’t just use my sharp tongue for self defense. I also use my body itself, as an argument, and as a provocation.

I am Tits. Got a problem with that?

Originally posted at My Own Private Guantanamo. Posted at Sociological Images in 2012. Cross-posted at Adios Barbie and Jezebel

 Matt Cornell is an artist, performer and film programmer who lives and works in Los Angeles. You can follow him on twitter at @mattcornell.

NPR recently aired a story about female lawmaker’s representation state by state. According to the story, Colorado has the most women; female lawmakers make up 42% of that total. Wyoming had the least, with women only representing 13% of state lawmakers.

NPR’s experts suggested that term limits in Colorado and a female-friendly party leadership were behind their high number of female legislators, whereas a change in Wyoming from multi-member to single-member district in the 1990s was unfavorable to women (because voters have to pick only one and tend to lean toward men when they have to make hard choices). The story also mentioned voting rules and the difficulty of balancing home, work, and lawmaking responsibilities.

In fact, sociologists have been studying this issue in depth for some time and a few years ago Deborah Carr summarized the reigning wisdom on why women are less likely to be politicians. She highlighted six factors to explain the gender gap in the US Congress:

  1. Women have to face sexism (e.g., glass ceiling – Nancy Pelosi used the term marble ceiling in her inaugural speech as Speaker in 2007), especially voters’ sex role stereotyping “what women can and should be.”
  1. Women are not in the “pipeline,” suggesting that not enough women are in careers that have historically led to political office.
  1. Because of gendered wealth and income inequality, women don’t as often have enough money to run multi-dollar campaigns, nor access to social networks full of big donors.
  1. Women have different interests, focusing on “issues related to family and social welfare, rather than national defense and international relations.”
  1. Women are less likely to be risk-takers than their male counterparts, perhaps explaining why women must be asked several times before they seriously consider launching campaigns.
  1. Women opt out of politics because of family responsibilities.

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To improve female participation in politics, we should promote more gender-neural political environments. Political parties should take further steps to recruit and support female candidates, as Colorado seems to be doing. We should repeatedly encourage women to run for office since they take a lot of encouragement before they seriously consider launching candidacies. More importantly, we need to seed the pipeline by encouraging young girls to get involved in student government and see governing as compatible with their interests and abilities.

Sangyoub Park, PhD is a professor of sociology at Washburn University. His research interests include social capital, demographic trends, and post-Generation Y.  

Pregnancy wasn’t always something women did in public. In her new book, Pregnant with the Stars, Renée Ann Cramer puts public pregnancies under the sociological microscope, but she notes that it is only recently that being publicly pregnant became socially acceptable. Even as recently as the 1950s, pregnancy was supposed to be a private matter, hidden behind closed doors. That big round belly was, she argues, “an indicator that sex had taken place, [which] was simply considered too risqué for polite company.”

Lucille Ball was the first person on television to acknowledge a pregnancy, real or fictional. It was 1952, but it was considered lewd to actually say the word “pregnant,” so the episode used euphemisms like “blessed event” or simply referred to having a baby or becoming a father.

Almost 20 years later, in 1970, a junior high school teacher was forced out of the classroom in her third trimester on the argument that her visible pregnancy would, as Cramer puts it, “alternately disgust, concern, fascinate, and embarrass her students.” So, when Demi Moore posed naked and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair just 21 years after that, it was a truly groundbreaking thing to do.

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Today being pregnant is public is unremarkable. Visibly pregnant women are free to run errands, go to restaurants, attend events, even dress up their “baby bump” to try to (make it) look cute. All of this is part of the entrance of women into the public sphere more generally and the pressing of men to accept female bodies in those spaces. The next frontier may be breast feeding, an activity related to female-embodied parenting that many still want to relegate to behind closed doors. We may look back in 20 years and be as surprised by intolerance of breastfeeding as we are today over the idea that pregnant women weren’t supposed to leave the house. Time will tell.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Almost all of the representations of breasts we encounter in the mass media are filtered through the hypothetical heterosexual male gaze. Breasts are objects, things that people desire. Women’s personal, subjective experiences of having breasts is almost never discussed in pop culture. I mean, yes, occasionally two female characters might talk about their breasts, but usually in reference to whether and how they do or fail to attract male attention (e.g., “Is this too much cleavage?” and “I wish I had more cleavage!”). What it feels like to have breasts outside of the context of being a sex object isn’t talked about. There’s a void, a black hole of experience.

The only other common discourse about breasts that comes to mind centers around breastfeeding. In that discourse, the idea that breasts are for men is challenged, but only in favor of the idea that breasts are for babies. In neither discursive context does anyone make the case that breasts are primarily for the people who have them. That the pleasure (and pain) and comfort (and discomfort) that comes with breasts belongs — first and foremost — to female-bodied people.

Last week, I saw something different. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an odd little TV show with a couple musical numbers in each episode and one of the numbers last week was called “Heavy Boobs.” It’s safe for work but… maybe not safe for work.

Rachel Bloom‘s song names and describes one subjective experience of breasts. Breasts are “heavy boobs,” she sings, just “sacks of yellow fat” that can weigh on women. In the song, the breast-haver’s experience is centered to the exclusion of what men or babies might want or think or experience. I can’t ever remember seeing that on TV before.

And that’s plenty, but what she and her fellow dancers do with their bodies is even more extraordinary. They defy the rules of sexiness. Their movements are about embodying heavy boobs and that’s it. It’s as if they don’t care one iota about whether a hypothetical heterosexual male will see them. The dance is unapologetically unsexy. No, it’s more than unsexy; it’s asexy. It’s danced neither to repulse or attract men; instead, it’s danced as if sexiness is entirely and completely irrelevant. There’s no male gaze because, in that two minutes, there’s not a man in sight.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Earlier this year Brandy Zadrozny interviewed me for a Daily Beast story about the new CDC guidelines for alcohol consumption by women. It caused an outcry because it advised all women who could potentially become pregnant to completely abstain from alcohol as a way to prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Responses across the blogosphere included several objections, including the fact that research shows that alcohol alone is not sufficient to cause fetal harm (enter poverty as a major confounding factor) and paternal drinking prior to conception is believed to contribute to incidence of these disorders, too, despite no advice to men of fertile age to refrain from any alcoholic consumption.

Interesting points, but an argument made by Renée Ann Cramer in Pregnant with the Stars gave what I thought was some interesting historical perspective.

Until feminists fought to make it otherwise, she explains, it was perfectly legal in America to refuse to allow women access to certain jobs because they might get pregnant. If the working conditions were too challenging or involved exposure to dangerous chemicals, women were considered unfit for the work by virtue of their always-potentially-pregnant status. And if they did this work and harm did come to a child, it was considered a failure of the state to adequately protect her.

Feminists fought to make this “protectionism” illegal, demanding that women themselves have the right to decide, alongside men, if they wanted to take occupational risks. And they largely won this fight.

In turn, though, women themselves came under scrutiny. They were no longer excluded from certain jobs, but if they chose to do them, it was reasonable to judge them harshly for doing so. Cramer calls this the “responsibilization” of pregnancy. Now that women had the right to handle their pregnancy (or pre-pregnancy) however they wished, they (and not the state) would be held responsible for doing so in ways that society approved or disapproved.

This is what the CDC guidelines are doing. It’s not legal to “protect” women from harming her not-yet-existing fetus by refusing to serve her alcohol. Women have the same rights as men. But with rights comes responsibilization and if women don’t make the choices endorsed by their communities, the health industry, and even the federal government, they can expect to be surveilled, judged, and possibly bullied into doing so.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

On NPR last week, the headline was “Has Bernie Sanders Moved Hillary Clinton to the Left?” The story centered on Sanders’ more radical leftist politics and the many ways in which Clinton’s stated policies have changed to look more like his.

The implication was that Sanders was forcing Clinton to move to the left. But what if it’s also giving her the opportunity to move to the left?

As the frontrunner, and a woman who is being watched carefully for any sign that she is ill-suited for the presidency, Clinton’s best strategy is probably to play it safe. That is, all thing being equal, she should stay well within the contemporary well-worn middle of the Democratic party.

But Sanders is throwing off the “all things being equal” by vociferously and often convincingly arguing that she isn’t left enough. He is, in other words, serving as a “radical flank” of the Democratic party. A radical flank is the segment of a social movement that stakes out the most extreme position.

Famously, the activities and ideology of the radical flank of the Civil Rights Movement (e.g., the Black Panther Party) resulted in increased social and economic support for its more moderate representatives (e.g., the NAACP). One reason is because, through contrast with the radical flank, the demands of Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. started to seem downright moderate.

Something similar could be going on here. Sanders’ more radical rhetoric and policy may be making Clinton’s previously centrist-seeming positions suddenly seem quite conservative. This might, in fact, be pulling her to the left, “moving” her by necessity, but it might also be giving her the opportunity to do so. It’s possibly that she’s a more progressive candidate than her pre-Sanders policy statements reflected, as she was strategically aiming for the middle. But, now that Sanders’ has shifted the goal posts, she is free to take more radical positions without looking like a radical at all.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Jay Livingston is our regular baby name analyst, but I’m gonna give it a go just this once. Over at Baby Name Wizard, Laura Wattenburg published a chart showing that vowels are on the rise. Both girls and boys names have more vowels in them relative to consonants than they have in the last 150 or so years, and more vowels than the English language overall.

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Based on the yellow line alone, it’s clear that people think that names with more vowels are more appropriate for girls than boys. So, how to explain the uptick, especially among boys?

For boys, the uptick begins during the revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s. Feminists at that time wanted women to be able to embrace the masculine in themselves, but they wanted men to embrace their feminine sides, too. They got the first thing but not the latter and, ever since, the personalities of both men and women both began measuring more masculine, with women changing more than men.

But then both men’s and women’s names should be becoming more masculine. So, maybe baby names are a special case. I googled around and found a survey (of uninterrogated quality) that found that dads have substantially less influence over a babies’ names than moms do. Accordingly, perhaps baby-naming resists some of the stronger influences toward masculinization that come from men. Maybe mothers, especially in that warm moment of naming their babies, are holding out for that half of the feminist revolution that has proven thus far elusive: the valuing of the feminine in all of us.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.